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A new set of maps basing the relative size of countries on socio-economic data rather than land area clearly shows gross inequalities in global public health.

The innovative maps, published in PLoS Medicine this week (30 January), were developed by the Worldmapper project.

The project aims to show each country sized according to public health variables derived from UN data such as population density, disease distribution and healthcare spending.

By using these variables instead of landmass, the maps give a clearer picture of how health problems affect different parts of the world.

A standard map of global malaria distribution, for example, will show a relatively small area of the world affected by the disease.

But according to Danny Dorling of the UK-based Sheffield University, who led the study, malaria is "a disease of people, not of land".

He showed that when populations rather than land area are measured, the resulting map is very different: Africa and South Asia appear vast and the developed world tiny. This picture is reversed when the map is drawn according to public health spending.

Dorling told SciDev.Net that the maps "clearly demonstrate that despite advances in technology and exceptional wealth, human inequality and suffering are still a reality".

"You can say it, you can prove it, you can tabulate it, but it is only when you show it that it hits home," says Dorling.

He hopes the maps will be used in educational institutions to provide a perspective of the world distinct from standard projections.

The Worldmapper project completed 365 maps during 2006, including graphic depictions of the number of working medical staff available and the distribution of HIV/AIDS. Next, it aims to map major causes of death based on 2002 estimates from the World Health Organization.

Link to the full paper in PLoS medicine.

Reference: PLoS Medicine doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0040001 (2007)